Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer (30 January)

Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo
Die Walküre – Act 1

Sieglinde – Petra Lang
Siegmund – Jan Kyhle
Hunding – Alfred Reiter

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 30 January, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

In this, the first of two Barbican Hall concerts serving up programmes of Liszt and Wagner, we were given the chance to savour the individual, full and exciting sound of one of Europe’s most accomplished orchestras, the Budapest Festival, under the baton of its founder-conductor Iván Fischer.

The Liszt displayed the homogeneity and roundness of the sound, and that this was partly due to the seating layout – the violin sections either side of the podium, double-basses right at the back of the stage, and harpists at the front behind the first violins. From where I was sitting, the front stalls, balance was excellent. I very much enjoyed Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo. This relatively early piece of Liszt orchestral music is not encountered often in the concert hall; a shame as it is rather attractive. With its sombre introduction it immediately announces presents itself as an unashamedly romantic piece, and although it is not programmatic it does have some thematic material that binds it into a cohesive whole – not least the anguished Allegro strepitoso section which interrupts the brooding and quiet beginning and later reappears to disrupt the dance section towards the end of the piece.

With Wagner in mind one also became aware that the younger composer might have learnt some orchestral tricks from his father-in-law. For example the lament voiced by the bass clarinet in the second section of the piece is not so far away from the cor anglais theme at the start of Act Three of Tristan und Isolde. It was beautifully played here. The placing of the harps really allowed their material to register and not to get lost in the orchestral textures. The evident enjoyment of the players was most infectious.

After the interval came a concert performance of one of the most popular acts of Der Ring des Nibelung, the first act of Die Walküre. I am sure the presence of the amazing Petra Lang was one of the major reasons for the good house. As a mezzo-soprano one might not have thought that Sieglinde would be an obvious role choice for her: sopranos with free and easy top registers and good low notes more commonly undertake it. As usual, Lang eased anxieties within in a few moments, although, for my taste, her vocal quality is probably too mezzo-ish. However, she is such an exciting artist, has a thrilling, rich and intensely beautiful voice and bags of dramatic temperament – and is so convincing. The famous narrative passage of “Der Männe Sippe” and the ecstatic “Du bist der Lenz” certainly got their due, and there was the appropriate sense of abandon at the end of the act as well. No shrinking violet or neurotic Sieglinde this; instead a rather strong and feisty one.

Originally she was to have been partnered by Poul Elming, one of Bayreuth’s reigning Siegmunds, but he was indisposed and replaced by the Swedish tenor, Jan Kyhle, familiar from Scottish Opera’s Ring cycles of last summer and autumn. Writing about his vocal performance in Edinburgh last year I said, “It is a very emotional voice with a quick vibrato and a plangent quality well suited to the part, but it has the power and heroic quality also needed”. I need add nothing more here, except to say that without the constraints of a staging and the need to project over the footlights and the pit, the quiet and reflective moments in the role were delivered beautifully with a true and focussed piano to a very attentive and quiet hall. Dramatically he and Petra Lang really brought the waking love affair to life with concentration and a telling economy of gesture.

Alfred Reiter sang the dour Hunding with appropriate gravelly and menacing voice. The text was extraordinarily clear from all three singers. For this Fischer’s conducting and control of the orchestra must take some credit. The prelude was well paced and tempos throughout helped the dramatic flow and did not feel contrived. Only rarely did one feel that the orchestral sound might overwhelm the singers, but it never happened. I particularly liked the horns and brass depictions of the huntsmen chasing Siegmund and Wälse through the forests during Siegmund’s narration, and the surging string playing in the final minutes of the act and during the “arrival of spring” was tremendous.

This was one of the concerts in the Barbican’s “Great Performers” series where the label was right about the contents!

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